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By Mike McBride


Have you heard about the two friends who each had the same lunch of soup, sandwich, beverage and dessert at a popular local restaurant? They planned to split the $35 bill at $17.50 each, but the server said that management had decided that the wealthier of the two should pay $20 and the other $15.

    You’re saying this story can’t be true, but something very similar has really been going on with the Dighton-Rehoboth school budget since 2015 − with many more dollars involved. 

    In the late 1950’s, Dighton and Rehoboth wisely collaborated to build a regional high school, thereby realizing the mutual economic and educational benefits of shared instructional programs, staff and facilities for the students and taxpayers of the two communities. With everything under one roof and almost all operating costs held in common, the 1958 Dighton-Rehoboth Regional Agreement stated that the high school operating costs for each town were to be determined and apportioned based on its ratio of students to the total number of students. Costs and payment of costs were directly tied to student headcount − if you had 40% of the total number of students, you were liable for 40% of the total operating cost. The two towns each paid for what they used to educate their students.

    The 1987 amended agreement, which regionalized grades K-8 in addition to the high school, maintained the same student ratio method for apportioning operating costs at the high school, but stated that the share of operating costs for K-8 would be apportioned on the basis of actual budgeted operating costs for each member town. The two towns each continued to pay for what they used to educate their students.

    The 1993 Mass. Education Reform Act established goals and standards for the public education system along with a “foundation” level of spending for each school district to meet the goals and standards. To fund the foundation amount, each town is expected to spend a state-determined minimum contribution (based on ability to pay), with the state providing the difference via Chapter 70 aid. (Katherine Dennen Cooper’s explanation of the School Funding Process, January 2015 Rehoboth Reporter, pp 76-77)

    In 2007, the Massachusetts Board of Education (BoE) approved revised regulations governing REGIONAL school district budgets. These new requirements affected how ONLY towns in REGIONAL districts assessed their budgets.

    The new 2007 rules now allowed two ways for regional districts to calculate their budget assessments.

    One way is called the Statutory Method. The Statutory Method’s formula dictates subtracting the combined total of each town’s specific state-assigned required minimum contribution amount and total district revenues (such as state Chapter 70 and transportation reimbursement, among others) from the total district operating cost. Any remainder is apportioned per the district’s regional agreement.




The Statutory Method thus allows some towns in regional districts to avoid paying for what they use to educate their students, necessarily requiring other towns in the district to pay the difference.  This is because the Statutory Method assessment calculation formula requires that each town combine their state-assigned minimum contributions, which can obscure a wealthier town’s inequitable share of the regional district’s required total minimum contribution. Furthermore, the BoE stipulates that any above minimum amount cannot be divided such that a town would lose the “benefit” it receives for being a “less wealthy community.” (From Regional Agreement Amendment Cmte. consultant Mac Reid’s 6-17-2015 letter summarizing his conversation with DESE’s Christine Lynch.)

    For Dighton-Rehoboth (which strives for district-wide parity) using the Statutory Method means that, using D-R business office data, for fiscal year 2018 it costs Rehoboth $9,950 to educate each of its students, while Dighton spends $5,798 for each of theirs − a difference of $4,152 PER STUDENT.


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    The difference in the two methods for 2018 is a swing of $2,965,511.

    The illustration shows that, based on total district operating cost and student enrollment, Dighton needs a minimum of $10,856,675 to pay for its students’ education; however, by using the Statutory Method, it contributes only $7,891,164. By rule, because it is in a REGIONAL district, Rehoboth must pay Dighton’s $2,965,511 shortfall. Therefore, using the Statutory Method forces Rehoboth to subsidize the cost of Dighton’s students’ education.

    The other way is called an Alternative Method, which permits more flexibility in allocating assessments. Using an Alternative Assessment (see illustration) allows assessment based on the ACTUAL COSTS spent by each town to educate its students, and in fact had been used until 2014 by the D-R regional district since its beginning over fifty years ago. Many regional districts currently use an Alternative Method.

    So, why not use an Alternative Method?  In the example, each town most importantly pays for what it uses − its students − but remarkably the rules prohibit using an Alternative Method if ONLY ONE TOWN in a regional district objects to it − necessitating using the Statutory Method by default.  The other regional district member towns have no other choice in the matter.

    The state’s bias toward using the Statutory Method shifts our focus from the number of students in each community to the wealth of each community, and steers regional districts toward using the Statutory Method by making it financially attractive and easier for less wealthy towns to choose it rather than an Alternative Method.

     Implementation of the Statutory Method for the D-R regional district began in 2015. That year, the difference between the statutory and the alternative calculation methods (as in the illustration) was over $925,000. Each year since then, the gap has trended higher, and through 2018 now cumulatively totals over $6.25 million.

    We are frequently reminded that we are one district. Now, if we are truly one district, and about 47% of our student population resides in Dighton, then it is the responsibility of the Dighton taxpayers to pay for an education for that 47% --- not just 32%.


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    Notice that instead of each town paying for what they use, as Dighton’s enrollment steadily increases, their payment share steadily decreases. As Rehoboth’s enrollment decreases, their payment share increases!

    Rehoboth taxpayers have to provide for enough students of their own, without having to take on the extra burden of providing for some of Dighton’s students.

    Obviously, whatever Dighton doesn’t have to pay to educate students who reside in their town, can help provide for its other town expenses, such as police, fire and highway, because Rehoboth is paying part of its school cost share for them. Accordingly, when Rehoboth pays part of Dighton’s school costs, it deprives Rehoboth of capital that could help support its own equally important expenses, such as the need for improvements to both D.L. Beckwith and Palmer River Schools or a new municipal building.

Using an Alternative Assessment Method could help correct this imbalance.

     In short, while we must accept that the 1993 Education Reform Act requires Rehoboth to assume more of its foundation budget portion due to its more “wealthy” status, Ed. Reform and subsequent regulations do not require that Rehoboth un-necessarily support any of Dighton’s school financial commitments, which can happen when using the Statutory Method.

    There are many reasons to regionalize, but cost reduction and savings are perhaps its principal incentives. These were major factors leading to construction of our high school almost sixty years ago. In 1987, the towns regionalized K-8 partly to benefit from a transportation reimbursement offered by the state.  Unfortunately, employing the Statutory Method is inconsistent with the promotion of economic fair play, because using the Statutory Method can force a “wealthier” town to assume a disproportional financial responsibility for the educational expenses of a regional district. This is a burden with which a non-regionalized town does not have to contend, and discourages, rather than enhances, a regional relationship.

    It is highly doubtful that Rehoboth would have signed the original 1958 regional agreement under the payment terms of the Statutory Method.

    We must remember that the state does not mandate that we must use only the Statutory Method. It also allows for the use of an Alternative Assessment Method. The Statutory Method’s design can result in a financial gain for a less wealthy town and a loss for a wealthier town in a regional district. But the wealth of a community can change over time. By using an alternative method, we could consistently apportion costs according to student enrollment, thus ensuring equitable assessments no matter how each town’s wealth or student enrollment changed. Neither town would profit at the expense of the other.  Each town would just pay its own fair share.

 

By Kathleen Dennen Cooper


As Chair of the Dighton-Rehoboth Regional School Committee, speaking on behalf of myself, I would like to respond to some comments and misconceptions that were printed in the September issue of The Rehoboth Reporter. 

    There seems to be a general misunderstanding about how assessments are performed, not only in our regional district, but as well as in regional districts across the state.  I would also like to applaud the efforts of Michael McBride and of Selectwoman Pimental – the school committee always welcomes input and strives to solve problems creatively and collaboratively.  However, some of the statements written were not completely accurate, so I will attempt to respond to some of the misconceptions. 

    Both articles suggest that alternative assessments which would benefit the town of Rehoboth are routinely used in our State.  Mr. McBride states that “many regional districts currently use an Alternative Method” wherein “each town most importantly pays for only what it uses – its students”.   Ms. Pimental states, “every regional school district follows an alternative method.”  Currently in Massachusetts, of the 84 regional school districts that exist, 19 reported that they used an alternative assessment in the previous year according to the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).  

     Furthermore, according to the Assistant Director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools (MARS), many schools who use an alternative assessment are actually using an optional approach to the Statutory Assessment, and are reporting it as “alternative”.  More importantly, it does not necessarily effect the way that Chapter 70 (Ch70) state monies are divided among towns in the large majority of cases.  Historically, when alternative assessments are used, they are typically done as a temporary agreement during a transition period in the formation of a new regional district.  They are not set up to be the yearly modus operandi of a regional school district.

    Both Mr. McBride and Ms. Pimental talked about the wealth formula that the state employs in order to determine state aid to towns and school districts.  Ms. Pimental says, that “Rehoboth is considered a “wealthy” town for the purposes of calculating Ch70 money”.  That is correct, the state uses a wealth formula to provide state aid to towns and school district.

    This calculation is based upon a towns property value and personal income. In the case of Rehoboth, the Equalized Property Value is $1.76 Billion dollars. The Equalized Property Value of Dighton is $893 Million dollars, or about half of Rehoboth. Accordingly, Rehoboth would receive about half as much state aid as compared to Dighton if apportioned by this one measure.  Whether or not you personally consider Rehoboth to be “wealthy,” the town has a higher property value than Dighton by a significant measure.

    Hypothetically, if Rehoboth de-regionalized tomorrow, was free from Dighton, and Rehoboth schools were organized as a single municipal district, the following would immediately occur:


1.   The “unfair” wealth formula would still be in effect.  The taxpayers of this town would still receive the same state aid, or less, provided currently.  Additionally, they would still be responsible for paying the same minimum required contribution for our students.


2.  The Dighton-Rehoboth School District would lose nearly a million dollars of regional transportation aid if Rehoboth and Dighton were separated. 


3.  A duplicate central office would also be required, and possibly a High School.  Given the challenges that have been faced with the town hall and municipal complex, this may not be easy to accomplish.


    Needless to say, it costs more to be de-regionalized than to have a regional school district.  The list above is only partial.  Should we attempt to decrease school spending to the state minimum, the cuts would be dramatic to the General Education budget.  The Special Education budget would remain unaltered.

     One way to examine if the argument, that “Rehoboth is unfairly subsidizing students from Dighton,” has any validity is to look at where the money from the budget is actually being spent by each budget category.


Table 1: General Education Budget Allocations by Category for Dighton and Rehoboth

    Rehoboth pays for the actual costs of its K-8 students, its respective percentage of high school students, vocational students, and Central Office/District expenses.  Additionally, the Special Education costs are listed below.



Table 2:  Special Education Budget Allocations for Dighton and Rehoboth
    Rehoboth and Dighton each pay their actual costs for K-8 special education and a proportional amount for High School Students, Central Office and District expenses.

   The table below illustrates how the total school budget is arrived at and where the monies come from for the towns respective contributions.  The foundation budget is the total amount of money the state requires you to put into your education system including chapter 70 funds. The minimum town contribution is calculated based on the wealth formula discussed previously, and the above minimum contribution is an additional amount that is approved at town meeting.


Table 3: Allocation of the amounts “paid” per town versus the amounts “spent” in each town

The minimum required local contribution from Rehoboth, by the state, is $12,305,216, which is about twice of which is required from Dighton, $5,826,956.  This comes from the wealth formula previously discussed, and arises from the fact that Rehoboth land value is estimated at twice that of Dighton.  Again, it is critical to realize that this number would not change should we not have anything to do with Dighton.  It is the amount the state requires the town of Rehoboth to spend based on our land valuation and personal income.

    As a town, our foundation budget requires that we must spend, at minimum, a total of $16.65 million on education.  We pay $12.31 million in taxes, and appropriate an additional $2.64 million locally.  We spend $14.94 million in local tax money, and our total costs for our students is $22.48 million.  Dighton, on the other hand, spends $7.89 million in local taxes, and the total cost for their students is $17.50 million.  The difference between what is paid to the district through local taxes and that which is spent is made up by Chapter 70 funds and other revenues. 

    The fairness of this I suppose is subjective, although some things aren’t subjective:  the average house price in Rehoboth is higher than the average house price in Dighton.  Median salaries are higher in Rehoboth than in Dighton.  Additionally, Rehoboth has 17 millionaires reported and Dighton has zero.  We live in a very nice town, which means people want to live here, prices go up, and value goes up.  The State isn’t doing anything unfair in their valuation – it’s merely economics.  Furthermore, whether or not Dighton is in the picture – we are subject to that wealth factor.   It, unfortunately, won’t be decreased even if it is disliked.

    Before closing, let’s reverse the situation and think about the agreement from Dighton’s side.  Hypothetically, if we were to approach them with an alternative assessment asking them to pay more, they would have to collectively vote as a town to volunteer to raise the portion they pay to the schools.  It is difficult to expect a group to vote to voluntarily pay more than they are required to pay.  

    I would be more than happy to discuss this further with Mr. McBride and Ms. Pimental. I would hope that looking at the numbers together we can come to a more joint conclusion.  I would also urge you to please reach out to the State level, if you feel strongly that the state aid apportionment method needs improvement. The Foundation Budget Formula has been brought up repeatedly at State functions we have attended and is in the process of being reformed. In fact, out of the 7 Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) Resolutions being voted on 11/01/17 at the MASC Delegate meeting, two specifically are the, “Foundation Budget” and, “Litigation for Fair School Finance”. 
   I think that is where the root cause can be looked at and addressed.  At the local level, the Regional Amendment Task Force Subcommittee just agreed to all the changes in the final Regional Agreement Draft.  It will be sent to the full School Committee, and we will be seeking public input and comments on this proposed draft.   



 

GUEST OPINION ESSAYS ON THE DIGHTON-REHOBOTH REGIONAL SCHOOL BUDGET October 3, 2017

By Betsy Dexter Dyer


In December of 2017, Everett Otis Dyer of Rehoboth donated 433 acres of wetlands and uplands to the Rehoboth Land Trust for permanent preservation. Much of the area is the historically and ecologically important Squannakonk Swamp that occupies the central part of Rehoboth. It was the largest singly owned property in Rehoboth at the time of donation and effectively tripled the holdings of the Land Trust.  Dyer requested that the property be named for his late friend and mentor, Roy Wheaton Horton. How that property came to be purchased by Dyer, why he thought it was worth preserving, and why it was named for Horton is a story

worth telling.


The Roy Wheaton Horton Preserve

Rehoboth Land Trust


Everett Otis Dyer moved to his family’s farm in Rehoboth in 1949, just after graduating from University of Maine and also serving aboard a submarine in the Pacific at the close of World War II. In the family since 1818, Great Meadow Hill Farm presented many challenges to Dyer, who at age 22 was soon to be married. The buildings of the farm had begun to deteriorate and fields were beginning to grow up in brush. The homestead built in 1746 needed significant restoration.

   Dyer was fortunate to find mentors in Rehoboth, wise in the ways of fields, pastures, and woodlots and farm buildings.  One of these was Roy W. Horton whom Dyer met in 1958. Horton (then in his late 50s) was from an old Rehoboth family (distantly related to Dyer) and was an old-time “swamp yankee.”

    Rehoboth abounded (and still does) in historic cedar and maple swamps, often divided into small parcels used as family woodlots especially when frozen over in winter. Roy had worked in many of those swamp lots with teams of horses and oxen.

     In 1994, Dyer ended up writing a book, Swamp Yankee, mostly about Roy Horton and his various activities in the historic swamps of Rehoboth. Dyer described swamp yankees as those who reside near the swampy wooded areas of southeastern New England and who whose subsistence activities include maintaining active woodlots. 

CONSERVATION LAND DONATED BY E. OTIS DYER TO REHOBOTH LAND TRUST    December 27, 2017

Robert Frost, one of E. Otis Dyer’s favorite poets, wrote about swamps in “The Wood-pile” (excerpted here):

 

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,

I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here.

No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.'

The hard snow held me, save where now and then

One foot went through. The view was all in lines

Straight up and down of tall slim trees

Too much alike to mark or name a place by

So as to say for certain I was here

Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.

The historically and ecologically important Squannakonk Swamp

in Rehoboth, Massachusetts

   Before those swamp yankees arrived from Europe and Great Britain, Wampanoag native Americans lived on the wild game, plants, and wood of the swamps. The largest in Rehoboth is about 400 acres and named Sqannakonk Swamp or ‘wild goose’ in the Wampanoag language.  At a northerly edge of Sqannakonk Swamp is Anawan Rock, a landmark of the King Phillip Wars.

    Dyer was also an avid reader of Henry David Thoreau who is considered by environmentalist Rod Giblett a sort of “patron saint of swamps.”  Among the many quotations from Thoreau is this:

    “My temple is the swamp… When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most impenetrable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum… I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place…far away from human society. What’s the need of visiting far-off mountains and bogs, if a half-hour’s walk will carry me into such wildness and novelty.”

    In the 1980s, Dyer became fascinated by Squannakonk Swamp and surrounding areas such as Roaring Brook Woods.  At that time the land was highly divided into mostly small parcels. Some had been in families for many generations and others had owners unknown, having been forgotten.

    It would be a daunting task for anyone to find dozens of old descriptions and deeds, research the titles and trace the owners of every parcel. Yet Dyer, a land surveyor, was in a unique position to be able to do just that, albeit laboriously as a sort of avocation over the course of almost four decades.

   Eventually Dyer’s son E.Otis Dyer Jr joined the surveying business and also joined the project of researching and then buying in piecemeal nearly every parcel of Squannakonk Swamp, as well as some adjacent areas.  It was a labor of love for both.   

     It was also an enormous puzzle that took the form of a large map that covered a table upstairs in Dyer’s survey office. Each parcel was outlined with colored pencils and filled with hand written notes concerning the histories of ownership. By the end of the project around 2016, Dyer was 90 years old and the owner of about 450 acres wetlands and uplands including  Squannakonk Swamp, Little Squannakonk, Bad Luck Swamp and Roaring Brook Woods.  Some of it was co-owned with his son Otis Jr. who died unexpectedly that year at age 56. 

    Perhaps the project would have gone further as Otis Jr was beginning to acquire parcels in Munwhague Swamp at the time of his death. It had always been the intent of father and son to donate the entire assembled property for conservation in perpetuity. And so, in 2017 the time was right and negotiations began with the Rehoboth Land Trust. 

     Look at any topological map or satellite photograph of Rehoboth to see what a significant part of the town is comprised of Squannakonk and the surrounding undeveloped property. Dyer, an historian by avocation, loves the area for its historical importance. However, as his daughter and a biologist, I can attest to the extraordinary ecological importance of any area of that size that will remain protected from development. The donated land includes wetlands and uplands with diverse forest habitats, and is a uniquely unfragmented refuge for biodiversity. Southeastern New England was once mostly farms and woodlands but now is filled with suburbs, towns and cities and fragmented natural areas.  There are few properties of the size of Squannakonk remaining and far fewer that are destined to be donated and preserved.


The work of the Rehoboth Land Trust (RLT) is supported through the volunteer efforts and generous donations of its members and friends. To date, the RLT has conserved nearly 700 acres, provided public access to open space and continues to work with property owners to preserve the landscape and conserve natural resources that benefit the community. The RLT is a 501(C)(3) organization. Join our membership, as an Individual ($25), a Family ($50), a Sustainer ($100), or support us at a level of your choice. Please mail your check to Rehoboth Land Trust, PO Box 335, Rehoboth, MA. 02769. Checks should be made payable to Rehoboth Land Trust. We are always looking for volunteers to help with everything from trail care to digital expertise. Thank you for joining us in these important efforts.